The Christian Psychology Distinctive
[Our blogger for the month of January is Rick Sholette. Rick has graduate degrees in divinity and practical theology. He directs Paraclete Ministries in Evans, Georgia, where he counsels, trains, and researches. His interests include addiction recovery and theory development in Christian psychology.]
You are reading this blog on a “Christian psychology” website; I will, therefore, imagine that you have some notion of what “Christian psychology” means. But is your understanding of Christian psychology as precise and useful to you as it could be? May I posit a view that may help to clarify the pivotal distinction between “Christian integrationist psychology” and “Christian psychology”? It appears to me that much that passes as Christian psychology isn’t so. [I am using the terms “psychology” and “psychologist” in a non-technical sense to refer to the study of the soul by the student of the soul.]
The Church needs a clear consensus for the meaning of “Christian psychology,” a term presently used to refer to mental health counseling done by a Christian, efforts to integrate secular psychology with a Christian worldview, and any psychological research, teaching, or theorizing about psychology by a Christian. It seems to me that none of these uses is helpful—or especially accurate.
“Psychology” seems best understood as an effort to systematically and reliably study human and animal mental, emotional, and behavioral structures and processes and the informational results of those efforts. As such, psychology may provide a motive, information, or guidelines for counseling (or psychotherapy), but psychology is not counseling activity itself. So, to refer to counseling by a Christian as “Christian psychology” is inaccurate, confusing, and provides fuel for those who improperly criticize psychological counseling done by Christians.
Likewise, to call integrationist efforts “Christian psychology,” while closer to the truth, is also a misnomer. Integrationist efforts may produce elements of a Christian psychology by identifying important congruencies between secular psychology and Christian thinking, but such activity is not itself Christian psychology, though it begins to shadow it. Adapting secular models, methods, or materials to a Christian worldview is not the same as creating models, methods, or materials within a Christian worldview–even if the result is similar. This subtle but crucial difference may have been understood by Kuhn when he wrote, “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign” (p. 204). I am not necessarily dismissing the results of integrationist efforts; I am challenging the use of the term “Christian psychology” to describe the integrative activity that leads to such results.
Finally, referring to psychological research, teaching, or theorizing of psychology by a Christian as “Christian psychology” confuses the provider with the provision. The person who does the research, analysis, teaching, or theory construction may be a Believer, but what is being researched or concluded or taught may not be consistent with, or relevant to, an historically grounded, biblically defensible, Christian worldview. Therefore, calling such activity or content “Christian” may be misleading. Again, it gives intemperate critics of psychology something to complain about.
Perhaps a good (if more laconic) definition of “Christian psychology” is that effort to understand people from within a Christian worldview and the results of that activity, including the development of models, methods, and materials (from within a Christian worldview) useful for further research, theory-building, teaching, and counseling. But how is this different from (let alone better than) integrationist efforts or biblical counseling efforts, both which would also claim to function from within a Christian worldview?
From my perspective there is a single issue that definitively divides integrationist and “Christian psychology” approaches to psychological theory, research, and practice. While all Christian people-helpers, whether theorists, researchers, or practitioners, are “integrationists” to some extent in some ways, whether they recognize it or not (even biblical counselors), few Christian “integrationists” are Christian psychologists as I would like to define the term. Why do I say that?
If someone asked you to identify the one crucial difference between “Christian integrationism” (the integration of psychology with Christianity) and “Christian psychology” (the reason for this website’s existence), what would you say?
Amount of God-talk? Utilization of prayer? Christian worldview? Use of Scripture? Talk of spirituality? Moral integrity in work? Doctrinal orthodoxy? Belief in spiritual warfare? Belief in the supernatural? Resources used, such as church history or theological writings? No. None of these. These often characterize integrationists. But there is one thing integrationists cannot do without crossing that demarcation line, one thing they cannot believe and practice without radically disrupting their agenda to integrate faith and psychological science, one thing that thrusts them into a crisis of incoherence—if they realize what they are doing. They cannot integrate the concept of sin—fallen human nature—into their psychological science. In contrast, the true Christian psychologist must begin and proceed with that controlling presupposition in all that he or she does as a “psychologist,” whether theorizing, researching, or practicing psychology.
In my view this is the one issue that divides this Red Sea, allowing true Christian psychologists to cross, while leaving integrationists behind. The proper place of sin (not salvation) is essential in the theorizing, research, and practice of the Christian psychologist, while it has no proper place in the naturalistic, reductionistic, and materialistic world of contemporary psychological science (Slife, 2005; Richardson, 2005). If this is true, integrationists have a serious problem: They are trying to “integrate” two incommensurable worldviews. Alvin Plantiga explains that the real conflict is not between science and Christianity, but between science and naturalism (Plantiga, 2011). That seems right to me. Modern psychological science, as long as it adopts the methods of natural science with its reductive naturalism (Slife, 2005), is irreconcilable with biblical Christianity, especially in light of the doctrine of sin.
Christian psychology does not have that conceptual (and practical) problem because, if properly conceived, it acknowledges the problem of sin at the start: The noetic, systemic, cultural, inherent effects of sin threaten to compromise or distort everything we think and do, including our theorizing, research, and practice. Therefore, we as Christian people-helpers need to factor this reality into all of our work and ministry, humbly seeking God’s guidance—and involving God’s truth—in everything we do. If and when we do that, the end result, and the process, is distinct from mere integrationism.
Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Plantiga, A. (2011). Where the conflict really lies: science, religion, and naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Richardson, F. C. (2005). Psychology and religion in dialogue: Hermeneutic reflections. In A. Dueck & C. Lee (Eds.), Why psychology needs theology (pp. 185-206). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Slife, B. (2005). Are the methods of psychology compatible with theism? In A. Dueck & C. Lee (Eds.), Why psychology needs theology (pp. 163-184). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.